Understanding subjective well-being: perspectives from psychology and public health

Kirti V. Das, Carla Jones-Harrell, Yingling Fan, Anu Ramaswami, Ben Orlove, Nisha Botchwey

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

93 Scopus citations


Background: Individual subjective well-being (SWB) is essential for creating and maintaining healthy, productive societies. The literature on SWB is vast and dispersed across multiple disciplines. However, few reviews have summarized the theoretical and empirical tenets of SWB literature across disciplinary boundaries. Methods: We cataloged and consolidated SWB-related theories and empirical evidence from the fields of psychology and public health using a combination of online catalogs of scholarly articles and online search engines to retrieve relevant articles. For both theories and determinants/correlates of SWB, PubMed, PsychINFO, and Google Scholar were used to obtain relevant articles. Articles for the review were screened for relevance, varied perspectives, journal impact, geographic location of study, and topicality. A core theme of SWB empirical literature was the identification of SWB determinants/correlates, and over 100 research articles were reviewed and summarized for this review. Results: We found that SWB theories can be classified into four groups: fulfillment and engagement theories, personal orientation theories, evaluative theories, and emotional theories. A critical analysis of the conflicts and overlaps between these theories reveals the lack of a coherent theoretical and methodological framework that would make empirical research systematically comparable. We found that determinants/correlates of SWB can be grouped into seven broad categories: basic demographics, socioeconomic status, health and functioning, personality, social support, religion and culture, and geography and infrastructure. However, these are rarely studied consistently or used to test theories. Conclusions: The lack of a clear, unifying theoretical basis for categorizing and comparing empirical studies can potentially be overcome using an operationalizable criterion that focuses on the dimension of SWB studied, measure of SWB used, design of the study, study population, and types of determinants and correlates. From our review of the empirical literature on SWB, we found that the seven categories of determinants/correlates identified may potentially be used to improve the link between theory and empirical research, and that the overlap in the determinant/correlates as they relate to multiple theory categories may enable us to test theories in unison. However, doing so in the future would require a conscious effort by researchers in several areas, which are discussed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number25
JournalPublic Health Reviews
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 2020
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health
  • Community and Home Care


  • Affective
  • Cognitive
  • Determinants and correlates
  • Happiness
  • Interdisciplinary review
  • Life evaluation
  • Psychology
  • Public health
  • Subjective well-being
  • Theories


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